Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born just outside Madrid in 1547 – about a half century after the discovery of the New World – when Spain was fighting numerous enemies. For part of his life he was a sailor on board the Marquesa, which participated in the defeat of the Ottoman fleet in the Mediterranean. In that fight, Cervantes was suffering from malaria, and received two wounds in the chest and another which permanently disabled his left hand. He was later captured by the enemy, and spent five years in a prison in Istanbul. Upon returning to Spain, he found its economy in ruins, due in part to several outbreaks of the Black Plague which killed over 5% of all Spaniards in that century. Cervantes married a teenage girl whose mother had some land holdings; he fathered an illegitimate daughter; he worked as a tax collector, an unpaid position that came with an expectation of corruption for self-funding; he tried and failed to find opportunity in America; he went to prison a second time; he suffered from Type 2 diabetes, which would eventually kill him.
And yet, somehow, in 1605, after not having written a thing in over 20 years, Cervantes published a book. Drawing from his own hardscrabble experiences, he used everyday speech and real-life scenarios to make fun of what he thought were “vain and empty” chivalric romances which were popular at that time. The resulting comic story was a bombshell: a huge literary and popular success, despite being a veiled criticism of Spain’s royalty. In 1615, Cervantes published a second part of his story, with more direct references to the politics of Spain, Cervantes’ own struggles, and long philosophical asides on the meaning of life. His two-part story would go on to transform literature in Europe and today is considered the world’s first modern novel. It’s Don Quixote.
Meanwhile, in England, another writer was traveling on a somewhat easier path to greatness. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564. By the the age of 18 he was married to Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children. But some time in his twenties he left his family behind and went to London to work in the theater. He became an actor, then a playwright, and finally a part-owner of a company call the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. At which point something magical happened. Over the course of a career which lasted only two decades, Shakespeare created the most important body of work in the history of theatre: at least 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 long poems that have stood the test of time and have been translated and performed in pretty much every language on Earth.
But Shakespeare also struggled through a time of horrors. London was growing rapidly, and it was crowded, lawless and unsanitary. In 1563, an outbreak of Plague struck the city and killed almost a quarter of its inhabitants. No wonder, then, that all theatres in Shakespeare’s time had to be open-air venues which could hold performances only in the summer and in fair weather. They also had to close on Thursdays (in deference to another attraction, a bloodthirsty event called “bull and bear baiting” which featured packs of bulldogs attacking a bull or bear chained to a post) and throughout Lent. In 1603, the Plague returned again, killing 33,000 Londoners, and a smaller wave swept through in 1608. Finally, in 1613, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre caught fire during a performance and burned to the ground.
Perhaps it’s just coincidence that these two giants of literature created their masterpieces in such bleak times.
And here’s an even stranger coincidence: Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the exact same date, April 23, 1616.
(And then there is a corresponding anomaly that illustrates the struggles that Europe was going through: though they both died on the same date, Cervantes actually died in Spain ten days before Shakespeare died in England. That is another strange story.)
Skip forward to 1995. To celebrate the two contemporary literary geniuses, UNESCO declared that the double-death-date of April 23 be denoted World Book Day, with a mission to put a book into the hands of every child and young person in the world. It’s a celebration of authors, illustrators, books, publishing, copyrights, and reading in general.
Which leads us to a final weird fact: yesterday, April 23, 2020, the 25th Anniversary of World Book Day, turned out to be one of the greatest opportunities to stay home, sit tight, and read, in decades. For a scary and potentially deadly reason that Cervantes and Shakespeare would have recognized.
So if you are home, struggling through the pandemic and wondering where we are headed, take heart. Give a thought to previous times so dark we can hardly comprehend them today. Grab a copy of Shakespeare (or punt and watch Hamlet on Hulu.) Or, if you’re really ambitious, pull up Don Quixote on your Kindle (if it’s got enough memory to hold it).
Dark times are upon us. But dark times pass. And luckily those who went before us left us some inspiration to help us endure.